Ben Russell, one half of experimental shorts programme We Can Not Exist in This World Alone (in collaboration with Ben Rivers), chats to BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM about challenging the grammar of cinema.

FOR MANY avant-garde enthusiasts, the New Zealand International Film Festivals are the best chance to see some of the best contemporary avant-garde/experimental cinema out there. This year, two highly talented and lauded filmmakers, Ben Russell and Ben Rivers present a programme of their work We Can Not Exist in This World Alone. Featuring some of the more provocative, hypnotic and fascinating imagery of this year’s Festival, their mutual concerns raise important questions about modernity, documentary, representation and cityscapes among many other thematic ideas, and their programme is highly recommended.

Russell is an American experimental filmmaker and curator, who got into filmmaking while studying art and critical theory at university. “It wasn’t until my last semester that I made my first 16mm film. I had been making photographic series and doing a bit of video installation beforehand, and cinema simply made sense – to me, it was the logical marriage of the two mediums in that it wedded the physicality of photography with the temporality of video.” Through this, Russell was able to tap into the rich tapestry of film history including ethnography, early cinema and surrealism. This tapestry was “simply icing on the cake.”

Film has allowed Russell to travel with his programmes, and it was during his first European tour with Boston filmmaker Jonathan Schwartz (under the title The Psychoacoustic Geographers) that he came across the work of Englishman Ben Rivers. “I was given Ben Rivers’ name as a contact for a microcinema in Brighton that he had been operating over the last decade. We did a show there and got along famously from the get-go, and when I saw his film This Is My Land the following week in London at the ICA, I remember being totally excited that he was the fellow who had made it.”

The two had met up since then at various festivals, and after Russell was blown away by Rivers’ Ah, Liberty! at Rotterdam, the two talked about touring together. “For me, touring is a really important way both to see how my films live in the world and to create a broader context for them to keep on living, but I’d much rather not go it on my own. In addition to being good friends, Ben and I are both very fond of each other’s work, and there are enough parallel concerns throughout our films that we wanted to see how an extended conversation between them would sound.”

Experimental cinema usually carries such strong connotations of auteurism, it’s interesting to see experimental artists sharing a bill, and collaborating together on one programme. We Can Not Exist in This World Alone in effect, also challenges the concept of the singular vision that stalks the concept of auteurism. “I would hope so. Although I’m not really interested in clouding my own authorship with Ben’s and I believe that his work in particular bears enough stylistic markings to define it as such, I think this program collectively proposes a new set of meanings/inquiries that is not otherwise present in the individual films. Of course, the audience is the force that determines this – and since most of my films are “signed” BR, there’s a little bit of deduction involved as well.”

As a conceptual artist, Russell’s ideas drive the film. “I usually have a pretty good sense of what the film will be before I’ve shot anything at all, but I try to leave enough room for play and serendipity that the film can evolve into something better than what I could imagine it to be. There’s a lot in my films that happens between the projector and the screen – that is, the way a viewer’s body physically responds to sound and light – and I can only plan for that in the most cursory way.”

Russell continues to work in film, despite the growing trend for avant-garde filmmakers to move to digital filmmaking. This results in a nostalgic, intertextual tone to the visuals, and he makes excellent use of scratches and early silent film references. “When I work on film, I do so with a really specific set of historical or conceptual relationships in mind, and I make my choices of material to that end. The same statement would apply to video, or to oil painting, where the aesthetic histories are as strongly encoded in the media. A film like Daumë, which is scratched, grainy, and mostly in black and white, evokes a tradition of ethnographic filmmaking from the 1950s in large part because of its material qualities, whereas the fine-grain neon-colored Trypps#5 (Dubai) seems to be entirely of the present moment. Beyond any intellectual rationale, I just really like working with film, on film. The cost is prohibitive and the equipment is becoming increasingly rarefied, but both of these qualities create limits that have worked really well for me thus far.”

An example of this early cinema reference is Russell’s Workers Leaving the Factory (Dubai), which is a direct reference to the Lumière Brothers’ La Sortie des usines Lumière, one of the earliest and most influential early cinema films made. Russell’s film is set in Dubai, whose futuristic cityscape, and captures the same magnetism and immediacy of early “primitive” cinema. “In addition to the more pointed questions I was trying to ask about globalization, labor, and advanced capitalism through the substitution of ‘Dubai’ for ‘The Factory’, Workers seemed like a chance to answer a different version of your previous question - not ‘why film?’ but rather ‘what is film?’ It’s been 115 years since La Sortie des usines Lumière was screened for the public, and on a pretty basic level I wanted to see if a cinema of the past could still speak to our experience of the present. Your use of the word ‘magnetic’ suggests as much, which is great.”

“The notion that any sort of representation could err on the side of objectivity has always seemed especially suspect to me. Since a fairly exciting toss-up in the 60s and 70s... ethnography seems to have resolved its problems of representation by declaring its allegiance to science, and not art. This makes for a pretty easy target, and since I’m generally more interested in art than science, I’d rather keep working on finding new ways to deal with understanding and not-understanding the world. Knowledge seems much too contingent on context to hope for much else.”

The film has an overwhelming feeling of urban alienation too. It’s almost as if the cityscape doesn’t quite accommodate the people who are constructing it, that progress is coming at an all-too human cost. “Alienation is one of the hallmarks of globalization, and in the case of Dubai, the city is being built by a population of exploited migrant workers who will never get to occupy anything more than the labor camps on the edge of the desert. It’s tempting to read metaphor into the race of so many blue-clad bodies to escape the city-in-progress, but that feels like a disservice to the radically human face of exhaustion, hope, and hopelessness.” Russell’s Trypps#5 has a similar feel and is set in Dubai too, with a schizophrenic neon light spelling an all-too ironic happiness. “For such a short, simple film, I’m still impressed by all that’s at play in Trypps#5 (Dubai) – even though initially I wasn’t sure if it was a film at all. I guess I see a bit more pleasure in it now than you might – the apeshit neon flicker is what drew me to shoot that sign in the first place, and my first experience of it on a big screen in a dark theater was fantastic. The quick, a-rhythmic shifts between bright and black create all these unexpected perspectival jumps, and the semiotic inquiry still pales to the visceral experience for me. But yeah – what does that word mean anyway, and is it the same in Arabic, and how can it operate simultaneously as an emotion to aspire towards and as a debased sales tool?”

One of the best films of the programme is Russell’s Black and White Trypps Number Three, which presents concert footage of the audience moving in time to the noise music of Lightning Bolt. However, halfway through, the music shifts to drone music, and the audience in the film appear more animalistic, more primordial. The film breaks down notions of performativity and audience, and Russell makes spectatorship feel as raw as possible. This resulted in Russell being compared to the ethnographic kingpin Jean Rouch, and particular Jean Rouch’s landmark ethnographic piece Les Maîtres fous. “Jean Rouch’s film was absolutely a critical reference point for Black and White Trypps Number Three, and the representation of transcendence in both films is a dialogue I was certainly hoping to arrive at. I’m only making the connection now, but the way that cultural relativism pops up in Trypps#5 (Dubai) around language was a point of inquiry around ritual in Number Three. Which is to say, I arrived at the notion of filming the audience at a Lightning Bolt show in part because I was trying to imagine what a corollary within my own culture could be to the Hauka of Les Maîtres fous. I’d been part of that crowd depicted in Number Three numerous times, and I didn’t feel like it was enough just to make a document of the experience – I wanted to engage in the fact of spectatorship, of cinema, which has its own assumptions and expectations of transcendence. A representation is not the thing it represents, and so I set out to produce something else.”

In fact, the chiaroscuro lighting and the music almost has the effect of making the audience watching the film behave like the audience in the film. “When seen on 35mm, writ large on the silver screen, the film absorbs the audience into it – especially when the surround sound moves from the front and spills out around the theater. I screen Number Three on 16mm when it’s not possible to show it on 35mm, but as the image grows smaller, the film becomes much more observational and much less immersive. Format is always critical.”

Black and White Trypps Number Four breaks apart the notions of ethnicity and star persona, through the use of the iconic Richard Pryor. “I’d had a 100’ roll of picture slug (slit 35mm film sprocketed onto 16mm, used for editing sound) that was taken from Richard Pryor’s 1979 Live In Concert for a few years, and never found a use for it until I started working on the Trypps series. By the time I got to Number Four, I felt like I needed to apologize for the sort of ridiculous series title as well as the regrettably modernist formalism of the first two installments. I wanted to continue to indulge in my psychedelic impulses but recognized that there had to be some criticality in the mix, and Richard Pryor was the answer to all of these concerns. His scathing, hilarious, and incisive comedy routines are totally out of place within the context of experimental cinema, and the joining of the two therefore seemed rather difficult, and because of that, pretty goddamned important to at least try. In my film, a black-and-white Pryor makes uncomfortable jokes about black and white people, trips (“trypps”) on stage, and appears in four sections – hence the title. Although I’ve heard otherwise from more than a handful of people, I like to think that the film asks viewers to interrogate their own racial and spectatorial identities while allowing them to geek out on crazy flickering images (that have blue-and-purple retinal afterimages!)”

Russell’s brilliant films (and don’t forget Rivers’ work too) turn the camera back onto the claims of documentary, ethnography to some sort of objectivity. In effect, Russell is challenging the grammar of cinema that audiences have come to trust. “The notion that any sort of representation could err on the side of objectivity has always seemed especially suspect to me. Since a fairly exciting toss-up in the 60s and 70s (involving such characters as Rouch, Asch, and Gardner), ethnography seems to have resolved its problems of representation by declaring its allegiance to science, and not art. This makes for a pretty easy target, and since I’m generally more interested in art than science, I’d rather keep working on finding new ways to deal with understanding and not-understanding the world. Knowledge seems much too contingent on context to hope for much else.” We Can Not Exist in This World Alone is challenging, visionary and provocative, and asks the questions that cinema needs to be asking of itself as often as possible.